Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Some More Notes on Comic Book Logic (1)




In a comment on my last post, Gene Phillips made a pertinent observation about my use of ‘comic book logic’, noting (rightly) that “it's a tradition that long precedes comics. The original TARZAN novel is full of "comics logic," both in the way the ape-man teaches himself how to read, and in the way he manages to become a muscular super-stud rather than looking the way REAL feral human beings look.” And, indeed, most iterations of comic book logic (CBL) are an ingrained part of the tradition of popular and pulp fiction, and most certainly do historically precede both comic books and pulp fiction; I think it wouldn’t  be too far-fetched to find examples of it not only in medieval chivalric “romances”, but also in Classical Greek literature and mythology. This being so, I feel it necessary to elaborate a tad bit more on my use of Comic  Book Logic.

Mainly, because I think it differs in a crucial point from the common use as illustrated by the Tarzan example adduced by Gene – in itself as comic book logical as one can expect. Lets consider, for instance, the loose definition William Goldman uses to describe what he deems ‘comic book movies’ in his fascinating memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood (1983):

(1)    Generally, only bad guys die. And if a good guy does kick, he does it heroically.
(2)    There tends to be a lack of resonance (…); it’s not meant to last.
(3)    The movie turns in on itself: its reference points tend to be other movies. (…)
(4)    And probably most important: the comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way. (Quoted from the 1997 reprint from Abacus, London).

On first reading these points, one feels, undoubtedly right, that Goldman equates the comic-book movie with what we would call a ‘pop-corn movie’, the kind of film one parks the brain in the foyer and enjoys in a state of mindless stupor. Nothing wrong with either of them, nor does Goldman cast aspersions on their enjoyment.  If I have some contention with any of these four points, it’s with the implied criticism of so-called “escapist” entertainment, and (again, merely implied) support for stale realism in point (4). Of these four points, number (3) defines what may or may not be a characteristic of comic book logic, post-modernism, and, along with point (2), somewhat debatable, have no great import for what I intend to address.

However, points (1) and (4), taken by themselves, or in tandem, offer some valuable help for me to formulate my meaning of CBL. Lets begin – as we should – with point (1). In my thirty years of reading comic books (from the time I’ve ditched Disney and started first reading the Belgian and French bandes desssinées published in TINTIN magazine, and then DC and Marvel) I’ve lived through a good dozen deaths of super-heroes. And, in the main, super-hero comic books conform with point (1) of Goldman’s list of rules. Bad guys have a higher mortality rate than good guys, and good guys do die great epic deaths.


The first super-hero death I remember reading was Jean Grey’s at the climax of the ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ in UNCANNY X-MEN #137 (1980). At first sight, Jean’s death conforms to each and every pointer to ‘comic-book’ death per Goldman: it is one of the most heroic deaths one can remember and, deservedly so, it remains at the top of any list of Great Comic Book Moments. Jean’s death is unquestionably heroic, but is it a ‘comic-book’ death?

Not to my thinking. Obviously, the sacrificial hero is a central tenet of the Christian mythology, and surely predates it for several centuries. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (in itself a cheat, as in true comic book fashion, it has been retconned throughout the centuries intro being a self-sacrifice with pre-assured resurrection) lacks the over-the-top heroic quality of Phoenix’s death, opting instead for a weighty dramatic core that apparently removes it from the canon of ‘comic-book’ deaths.


However, Claremont’s take on self-sacrifice was a winning and rewarding bet. Instead of going for the ages-old hero-sacrifice to save the Universe from whatever threat endangering it (or from Evil, as in the Christian cannon), Jean is dying to save the Universe from herself. That she chooses a moment of battle adds an epic dimension to her death, but what makes it really memorable – as corny as it may sound – is that her sacrifice is framed as the apex of a love story. A love story that Byrne’s artwork elevates to cosmic proportion through the identification of its flame with the explosions from the fight on the Moon and the all-consuming light of the Sun. If ever a succession of three panels so perfectly condensed the theme of one story it surely was the one above these lines. And, I’m sure you’ll agree, dear reader, these three silent panels are soaring with epic music, an unheard soundtrack that echoes the music of the spheres. 


Then came the bloody, cruel, gratuitous, totally unexpected and devastating death of Elektra Natchios in DAREDEVIL #181 in April 1982. I do remember seeing the cover of that special issue (then in Portuguese, but with the same layout if I remember correctly) promising “Bullseye vs Elektra. One wins. One dies.” and thinking, shit, there goes my favorite Marvel supervillain!  Alas, that was not to be. Now,  maybe I felt Elektra’s death more than most for I and a good friend had also created a Greek female character for a project we were writing (both of us in high school), and Elektra worked as a personality model for her. We were so in love with her. She was gorgeous, and implacable, and a skilled fighter, and yet so… unexpectedly humane. And so, to see her stumbling and bleeding as she dragged herself to a cold painful death in Matt Murdock’s arms… it somehow didn’t seem right. Didn’t seem fair. And it was a bravado piece of art.


I read somewhere that the Comics Code wouldn’t allow for the graphic representation of a blade coming out of a pierced body, that being the main reason Miller had the blade pushing Elektra’s tunic away from her back. But wow! What an effect. The panel looks like a moment of imponderability, a nanosecond frozen in time; just that infinitesimal fraction of an instant before gravity reasserts itself and the blade will come through the cloth, and the body’s weight will slide the blade impossibly deeper inside Elektra.

The ninja’s death is one of the more touching I remember reading. It was in no way an epic death. It was a lonely death, the outcome of a cowardly trap, a solitary fight among the garbage and the cold. As if, touched by the warmth of love, having spared the life of Foggy Nelson a couple of pages before, she had displeased whatever cold-hearted gods were watching over her. To die at the moment of redemption is the stuff of powerful myth. And it was the wisest of decisions by Miller, not to allow her to ever interact again with Matt Murdoch (although it would have been even better if he had kept his intention of not allowing her to be used again by Marvel).


And then, also in 1982, came the strongest of them all: Jim Starlin’s The Death of Capitan Marvel, the first in the new line of MARVEL GRAPHIC NOVELS. Fighting a cancer, Captain Marvel died peacefully under the respectful watch of his colleagues. It is not usual for one to find a moment of such quiet dignity between the pages of comic books, and it clearly demonstrates the more mature and adult bend Marvel wished to imprint to its graphic novels line, pushing it closer in themes and execution to the European bandes dessinées. Never, in my opinion, did the comics medium, so adroit at getting through the idea of LOUD sounds, so wonderfully convey silence as in that last panel, with one lonely word calling the readers attention to what must have been the slowly decreasing intensity of Mar-Vell’s heartbeat.

The epic dimension of Capitan Marvel’s death is elegantly displaced into a touching inner fight for acceptance of death itself. And when such acceptance is reached, Marvel’s alien heart – in a graphic representation – stops beating in a humanizing sign of the concept of the super-hero itself, no longer just a super-man, but human, all too human…  


These three examples somehow transcend the comics medium; or, at least, the popular perception of the comics medium as light entertainment for kids and teens. They certainly contradict Goldman’s first rule, for here we have three heroes dying in ways that are not epic in the common sense, although they are undoubtedly moments of undeniable grandeur. They are not comic book deaths, despite belonging to comic books.

And one other factor made them feel like real deaths: when each of this characters died, at the peak of their popularity (the cases of Jean Grey and Elektra), or because they were commercially expendable (Captain Marvel), their deaths were definitive. One didn’t come out of the reading with the feeling that these characters would soon return, retconed or revived, to grace yet more adventurous pages.

And then there came the infamous DEATH OF SUPERMAN. Despite even recent protestations by writer Dan Jurgens, the greatest comics event of 1993 felt like nothing more than a cheap gimmick. Now, please, let me qualify this statement: I don’t mean the story, or the art, were poor in quality terms or as a comics story; hell, even as a comics epic. But, simply, there was no way in heaven or hell that DC was going to kill not only their flagship character, but the most recognizable of comic book icons of all time. No way. The exact moment Superman’s heart stopped beating, there started the clicking of the clock counting down to resurrection. Every reader knew Superman would be back. The only question was just when (just about six months, as it turned out) and how (the silliest way possible).


THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN forever cheapened every super-hero death that came after it. And boy, once the mortality of superheroes (the diagetic mortality – not the weird permanence of an eternal present, indifferent to the flow of time outside the narrative) was removed, they began to fall like flies: Batman, Captain America, Hal Jordan, Donna Troy, Wolverine, almost every main super-hero has died at least once over the years. And each and every time, we knew they would be back. In a more convoluted way, or in a less convoluted way, after a month or after a year, or after a decade, or in a parallel universe, we knew that – just like James Bond – they would return.

Besides degrading the face-value of the heroics currency, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN brought about the absolute fulfillment of Goldman’s first rule: now, indeed, every superhero could die big epic heroic deaths (and more than once, even!), thus making super-heroes deaths truly comic-book deaths. (On an aside, one can classify Christ’s death as a comic-book death as well, as we all know he would return as well – I always found Christ’s sacrifice something like a kind of a cheat, except when watching the great death scene in William Wyler’s 1959’s BEN HUR.)

On the other hand, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN underlined an essential characteristic of super-heroes, highly relevant to the point I want to make about ‘comic book logic’. Superheroes are not subjected to the laws of nature. This would seem like a simple lapalissade, but I think one tends to think of the world of comic books (a lot like the pulp fiction worlds) as not being wholly subjected to the laws of nature: men fly, machines fly faster than light, telepaths read minds, feminists sound clever, a professor and a student become fused as a single entity and radiation as the most astonishing effects. But I intend to separate these two propositions as follows: a) in super-hero comic-books, super-heroes are not subject to the laws of nature; b) everyone else in the same fictional universe is.

In a way, going back once more into the world of cinema, I think it’s totally appropriate to comic-books the reading Danny Peary does of the typical nameless anti-hero of Sergio Leone’s westerns in his Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful (1981). Equating Leone’s anti-heroes with the heroes of mythical Greece, Peary sees in Leone the working out of the premise of a mythical western era in which “several warriors were blessed with divine powers to help them in their never-ending combat (…). These warriors were (…) supermen who lived among mortals”.

And, I think, that’s the only way to understand the working of super-hero comic-books and of comic-book logic; a way that indeed has common roots with pulp literature, but goes somewhat beyond that. And that somewhat will be the point of my next post, when I’ll turn to Goldman’s rule number (4).

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My "No Theory" of Comics: Comic Book Logic



I stated in my last post, that I bring no “theory” with which to read comic books. Obviously, as one might have guessed, that is not entirely true. No one can spend years reading all kinds of comic books, reading and writing superhero fanfiction, and not bring with him some amount of baggage as to how he reads comic books. However, the way I’ll explore my reading of comics in this blog has not the necessary gravitas to be held as a theory. Maybe even to refer to it as a method would be too pedantic. Let’s just call it a set of flexible postulates that guide the kind of questions my reading of comics usually faces. And how should we call this set of vague postulates? One might think of it as common sense, but in this murky days of intellectual post-modernism, even that could sound pedantic. So, let us just call it “comic book logic”. Said logic, at least for me, derives from three very simple premises:

1 – WHERE WAS SUPERMAN ON 9/11?


This was a question heard more than once after the cowardly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in that fateful year of 2001. It was, understandably a cry of frustration, maybe even an unfair indictment against the inadequacy of the modern American mythos embodied in comic book superheroes. And the concept to stress here is unfair.

Surely no one was expecting Superman or The Avengers to intervene and defeat the very real evils of terrorism, international politics, and pre-9/11 government inadequacy to deal with both. After all, it was not the first time that superheroes were called to intervene in deeply traumatic historical events. Both Superman and Captain America (among a plethora of other costumed heroes) fought alongside American GIs on the battlefronts of WWII. And yet, even in that early period of development of such a demigod as Superman, one must have had the notion that with the Kryptonian hero on the side of the Allies, the war would be over in less than a month. It would take less than that to pinpoint the exact localization of the OKH officers and Hitler himself with Superman X-Ray vision and super-speed, and neutralize each one of them (lethally or non-lethally) even inside the strongest bunker. No V-2 rocket would fly past Superman’s heat vision , super-blow and super-velocity.  What were the Axis’s chances then against the combined powers of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Justice Society, etc… (Come on, even the Commando Cubs were able to get into Hitler’s own bedroom on the cover of THRILLING COMICS #41, cover-dated April 1944, even if not on the interior story.)

No GI in the Pacific Front or on the fields of Europe, carrying a battered copy of ACTION COMICS rolled up on his duffel bag was expecting the red and blue marvel to come flying through the trees and start smashing German Panthers or blasting Japanese Zeros from the sky. This inherent impossibility – that goes beyond the as-yet-impossibility of good Science Fiction – must perforce define Comic Book Logic. And define the way we read comics. We accept their internal logic, even though we know every aspect of it, is impossible. We cannot ascribe to superheroes (with the possible exception of masked vigilantes like Batman and other un-super-powered characters) the degree of highly-improbable-yet-possible credibility one can ascribe, for instance to a Jack Bauer or a James Bond (that we can think of as believable characters in near-impossible circumstances). That is the same as saying, superhero comic books are part of Fantasy, not Science Fiction (even when using SF’s tropes or modes).

And so, the first corollary must be: comic books are ruled by their own self-validating logic, a logic that cannot be challenged by facts extrinsic to their own internal consistency.   

2 – HOW CAN SHE/HE FIGHT IN THAT THING?


Or, Spandex Works Fine, Thanks.  There has been in recent times a recurrent ballyhoo about superheroes costumes. To be more honest, most of the ballyhoo confines itself to female superheroes costumes, and to how revealing they are of the female charms. Most of the criticism leveled to female costumes is mere cant from feminist crusaders that were never able to enjoy freedom of speech, aesthetic values, or mere biological constants. That is to say, most such criticism is political and ideological. Which would be very fine if they weren’t so blatantly masked as arguments concerning practicality. And what makes that smart-ass technique even more infuriating, is that the arguments presented are so stupid, that one cannot believe that their authors are not in the least aware of how intrinsically ridiculous they are.

The only true ‘practical’ problem with superheroes costumes arose when superheroes became the object of millions-of-dollars budgeted film adaptations. More precisely, during the pre-production of Bryan Singer’s seminal X-Men (2000). The garish comic book look of the mutants’s uniforms didn’t translate as well to film as the ones of Superman (1978-1984) or Batman (1989-1996). Singer wanted them to look real, as he was planning a less comic-bookely and more realistic film (how ironic that at the same time costumes were becoming more practical and real, everything else in superhero film adaptations was going down the drain of garish video-game CGI visuals and action). The film and its first sequel was a tremendous success, and the looks and textures of film-real costumes began to infiltrate comic-books. So far, so good. But “real-looking” does not necessarily mean “real-practical”. As a film like The Incredibles has laugh-out-loudly demonstrated, any costume with a cape is inherently impractical. And if practicality was of essence, every super-hero costume would tend to become a uniform, as every element (helmets, gloves, cybernetic-armor, flying shields, whatever) conferring a modicum of advantage would be adopted by other caped-crusaders. Fortunately, that is not the case. Capes work as symbols with long traditions. And so do garish uniforms, which, until recently, had a totemic quality relating to the origin-story of each character. Superhero costumes are not meant to be practical, they are meant to be symbolic.

And yet, it is frequent to find such incredible diatribes like this one from Newsarama, that merits to be quoted for sheer stupidity. Considering the then upcoming reformulating of DC’s Starfire’s costume, wrote George Marston and Lan Pitts:
For decades [Starfire] sported one of the comic book industry’s most infamously skimpy, at times gravity-defying, and downright impractical get-ups.

One's attention is immediately called to the “at times gravity-defying” part, something that, judging by what they write later on, has something to do with Starfire’s cleavage. Well, one cannot help but note that Starfire has the power of flight – you cannot get much more gravity-defying than that! The relation of superheroes to gravity has never been subjected to Newton’s laws but exclusively to the “comic-book logic” I mentioned above.

Then we have the impractical “get-ups”, impracticality that Marston&Pitts seem to evaluate according to the “favors [the costume can do] in a real superhero-supervillain battle-to-save-the-known-universe dogfight”.  Again, one has but to read the long-line of TEEN TITANS comic-books to gain a strained jaw in pure awe concerning the vast energies blasting in any dogfight Koriander can be engaged in. For that kind of battle, for the kind of super-powers Starfire (come on, her simple moniker says all that needs to be said) can yield, in practical terms she could as well be fighting naked – and her opponents too – as there’s no armor that could sustain such damage. Except, in comic-book logic. And comic-book logic exempts superhero costumes (male and female) of any logical, practical or even psychological consideration (although in the diegesis, there can be any or all of them).
So, the second corollary is: superhero costumes are exclusively aesthetic or erotic in nature, and are not bound to constrictions of realism or practicality.

3 – COMIC BOOKS ARE SEXY


One would think that it needn’t to be said. But all the talk about costume practicality, can lead one to think that all erotic characteristics should be banned from comic books. Sad it already is that few overt erotic or sexual situations should occur in comic books, even when more and more adults are reading them. But to pretend to completely de-eroticize comics is tantamount to pretend that guns should be banned from crime comics (they’re not essential to the genre, but are part of the tradition). Both male and female super-heroes (and many of the super-villains) are soft caricatures of perfect morphology: exaggerated only so that natural characteristics are enhanced in an aesthetically attractive way. Male and female super-heroes are drawn as close to idealized perfection as can be managed by the talent of the inker. They are the modern Pantheon of new gods and goddesses. And that is undeniably one of the historically main reasons that attracted pre-teens and teens to comic books. Men larger than life, women sexier than sin. A power fantasy that allowed nerds and geeks to escape the bullying of jocks and assholes in general, gaining a putative revenge over them as they knew – like only nerds can know – that one day, they would get what was coming to them: just look at the way nerdy Peter Parker took care of such bullies as the Vulture, Rhino and über-teacher Doc Oc.

And one must not forget that to most young boys, in an age before the advent of the internet, when even under the counter was to high to be reached, the first glimpses of perfect female bodies they ever got, came through comic books. Not the fleeting blink-and-you’ll-miss-it images of movies or tv shows, but gorgeous perennial panels in garish-colored comic books, that you could appreciate longingly for as long as you liked. So yes, comics are sexy.   There’s always an erotic tension that arises from female (and male) bodies in action: and in superhero comics, that action goes always over the top. Any killjoy can cry his throat sour about torn costumes, and impossibly firm breasts peeking through the tears on the fabric (never the nipple, mind you) , but one must surely stand in awe as how resistant all those costumes are to the level of power and high energy those fights yield. If you ever got into a fisticuffs you know that no matter how brief it turns out to be, or how unprepared any of the combatants is, both will end up with shirt buttons missing, torn sweaters, or broken wristwatches. But you can throw a nuclear bomb on Supergirl or Power Girl and if their costumes get even a small rip, that rip will be artfully located in such a way not to be the least revealing (talk about practicality and realism in comics). But that is as well, as the forbidden fruit is ever more enticing. (As a male reader, I tend to talk of superheroines, but the same is surely true for female readers ogling Conan’s six-pack or Wolverines manly naked torso, sweaty from killing hundreds of ninjas; and it is curious as every twerp complains about Red Sonja going into combat in a chain mail bikini, but give a free path to Conan who does the same in leather breeches).

Further on, I’ll detail my own take on this imbecile list, as I believe there are some valid points to be made about its subject, points that Marston-Pitts go out of their way to ignore. But for now, let’s finish with this third corollary of comic book logic: super-hero comics are inherently sexy, as their heroes are idealized archetypes of physical perfection.

So these are the lines that will guide my appreciation of any superhero comic book I’ll happen to comment on. Obviously, I do not confine my reading to superhero comic books. So, take these lines as my manifest. This is what you’ll get if you stick around or just come by one in a while. And I hope you do.